Every year the Orioles win and every year it's classified as a surprise, but maybe it shouldn't be.
One could make the argument that, nearing the halfway mark of the 2016 season, there are only two major (positive) surprise teams in baseball: the Texas Rangers and the Baltimore Orioles. The Rangers aren’t even that surprising; they’re having the kind of breakout season that makes the skepticism difficult to remember. The team is sequencing its runs like a crooked dealer, their touted young players like Nomar Mazara and Jurickson Profar are ready ahead of schedule, and the pitching staff ... okay, the pitching staff still doesn’t make any sense. But it wasn’t hard to conceive of a good Texas Rangers team, even if many experts chose not to.
Not so the Orioles. After leaping out of the gate with a seven-game winning streak, the club has since held at an 87-win pace, and enjoys one of the best records in baseball. Despite PECOTA treating them as a sub-.500 team going forward, their banked victories still give them a coin flip’s toss at the playoffs. Real or fake, they can’t be dismissed.
'I always chuckle when I hear someone say, 'We're on a five-year plan.' Look out. Somebody's just trying to cover their ass. We're on today.'
Buck Showalter was 28 years old when he got his first managerial gig in professional baseball, with the short-season Oneonta Yankees of the New York-Penn League in 1985. It took him just seven years to take over at the major-league level in New York, and he's now managed parts of 18 big-league seasons.
A year ago today, Francisco Lindor was recalled. Since (roughly) that day, the position has gone from a dead spot to historically great.
Eleven months ago Alcides Escobar was voted into the All-Star game as the AL’s starting shortstop. Escobar is an oft-praised defender with plus speed on a Royals team that was coming off a World Series loss and headed for a World Series win, but he also ended the first half with a modest .699 OPS and finished the season with a .614 OPS that nearly matched his .636 career mark through age 28. Alcides Escobar, All-Star starting shortstop just seemed a little lofty.
Royals fans stuffed the ballot box so much that second baseman Omar Infante and his .555 OPS nearly got voted into the game as well, but in Escobar’s case the story wasn’t so much about an undeserved selection as no other AL shortstops standing out as clearly deserving. In other words, don’t blame Escobar or Royals fans for his being in the starting lineup alongside the biggest stars in the league. None of the AL shortstops had an OPS above .750 at the All-Star break. The chosen backup was light-hitting Jose Iglesias, another glove-first player whose career OPS is .680.
Eleven months later, the AL’s shortstop landscape has changed so dramatically that the position as a whole has a higher collective OPS (.709) than Escobar had at the time of the All-Star break last year (.699) and Escobar has been the worst-hitting shortstop in the entire league. Xander Bogaerts is hitting .359/.405/.527 for the Red Sox. Manny Machado, who shifted from third base to shortstop following J.J. Hardy’s foot injury, is hitting .308/.376/.600 for the Orioles. Francisco Lindor, who made his debut exactly one year ago today, is hitting .304/.360/.450 for the Indians. Carlos Correa, the reigning Rookie of the Year, is hitting .256/.351/.423 for the Astros.
Manny Machado and Yordano Ventura take swings, Adam Duvall takes bigger swings, and Julio Urias finally does okay.
The Tuesday Takeaway
Trying to come up with a lede for a section about Tuesday night’s fracas between Manny Machado and Yordano Ventura is like trying to herd angry wolverines. Any attempt at humor will fall flat. What’s important is that what happened in Baltimore was stupid. Flat-out stupid.
The more things change, the more they stay the same, except for when they change.
We’re basically a quarter of the way through the season. About 60 percent of the league will have played at least 40 games by the time you read this. This early landmark of the season has a funny way of sneaking up on us, because of the disruptions in the early-season schedule—extra off days, rainouts, and so on—and because of the distractions that keep baseball off the front page of the sports section until summer: the NFL Draft, the NBA and NHL playoffs, etc. We spend so much time (rightfully, by the way) reminding ourselves that it’s early that we eventually risk doing so even when it’s no longer so.
I’m not sure we’re there yet. I’m not sure it’s not still early. Rather than revisit this in two weeks and find I missed the crossing of the Rubicon, though, I figure it’s worth taking stock of what’s changed so far. To do so, let’s examine the 10 teams whose Playoff Odds have moved 12 percentage points or more since the season began. This is an imperfect way of deciding how much has changed, of course. It embraces both PECOTA’s initial estimation of each team’s true talent level, and the system’s rate of change—the way it incorporates new information without giving up the value added by maintaining a long memory and healthy skepticism about relatively small samples. Still, it’s something, so let’s test out the relationship between our intuitions and PECOTA’s projections.
Either the Orioles will rub our noses in it again, or they'll make a little history.
You probably heard that the Orioles have started the season 7-0. This is notable for several reasons. First, this is the first time the O’s have gone 7-0 to start the season, though the team’s progenitor, the St. Louis Browns (nee Milwaukee Brewers), went 9-0 to start its lone pennant-winning season of 1944. Second, it’s an uncommon accomplishment. In the 116 seasons since the modern era began in 1901, this is only the 27th time a team’s started a season 7-0. Third, it’s a harbinger of success, as the 26 teams before this year that started 7-0 all finished at .500 or better, with 11 going to the postseason and five winning the World Series. Fourth, the Orioles were, well, not expected to be really good.
As of this morning, BP’s Playoff Odds simulator projects the Orioles to finish 79-83. That’s not great, but this being the contemporary American League East, a swing of six games would put them in first. So the Orioles could be an okay team, or they could be a mediocre team. The upside, of course, would be the team’s third postseason trip in the past five years. Based on historical precedent, what’s the downside?
Of the 26 teams to start 7-0 before the Orioles, here are the ones that stand out as the weakest.
The Red Sox give Pablo Sandoval's job away, the Orioles are in a snit with Hyun-Soo Kim, and the Rangers and Indians might be the best bet for a last-second big-league swap.
Pablo Sandoval Loses His Job To Travis Shaw
After a flurry of moves that included the signing of Pablo Sandoval, the 2014 Red Sox romped to the American League pennant, then swept the World Series. General Manager Ben Cherington received many an accolade for his work, and Sandoval became an instant fan favorite.
The Braves' outfield battle is down to three contenders, while the Orioles and Yankees try to round out their pitching staffs before Opening Day.
The Braves’ fourth outfield spot is still open to Jeff Francoeur, Michael Bourn, or Emilio Bonifacio Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn may have been a package deal for the Braves at the 2015 deadline, but it’s almost certain that they’ll be parting ways by Opening Day. The Braves are narrowing down their bench candidates, and according to Mark Bowman of MLB.com, Nick Swisher is likely to get the boot by the end of spring training if he fails to net a trade offer. Assuming the Braves offload the veteran outfielder by absorbing the rest of his $15 million contract, they’ll still have to rid themselves of another outfield candidate to set their 25-man roster. That leaves just three outfielders to duke it out: Bourn, clubhouse personality Jeff Francoeur, and bargain backup Emilio Bonifacio.